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'Hard Times and Hard Travellin'

Celebrating 20 years of the American Studies Resource Centre

A report by Shonagh Wilkie

Posted 20-Feb-2014

Will Kaufman sings Woody Guthrie

The Joe H Makin Drama Centre echoed to the sounds of a bygone era, as Dr Will Kaufman evoked the politics, passions and poetics of Woody Guthrie to mark the 20th anniversary of LJMU's American Studies Resource Centre.


During the 'Woody Guthrie: Hard Times and Hard Travellin' event, Dr Kaufman held the audience enthralled with his account of the forgotten and homeless during the Depression and Dust Bowl of 1930s America. Using Guthrie's songs to punctuate his historical commentary, he was able to give voice to the communities displaced and vilified as unwanted migrants in their own country.

The performance more than justified Industrial Workers of the World activist Joe Hill’s belief that while 'a pamphlet is never read more than once... a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over'. Though written decades ago, Guthrie’s songs still resonated as a powerful critique of a society that failed to support its most vulnerable citizens.  


Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma in 1912. His life was marked by tragedy, first by the death of his older sister, Clara, and then by the institutionalisation of his mother, Nora. By the 1930s, Okemah, once an oil boomtown, went bust, forcing Guthrie to move to Texas where he married, had three children and began his musical career.

When the dust storm hit in 1935, Guthrie, along with thousands of other 'Okies', headed for California. The 'hard travellin', hostility and exploitation that he and the other 'dust bowl refugees' endured on the road to the 'golden state' is captured in his Dust Bowl Ballads, which are among the most popular he recorded.


By comparing Guthrie's songs with those penned in Tin Pan Alley, such as 'Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?', Dr Kaufman showed how America's 'original folk hero' rejected balladry entreating the poor to meekly accept their fate, instead calling for greater political activism and economic justice.

Until incapacitated by illness, Guthrie supported many progressive campaigns for equality, social justice and economic reform, though when pressed on whether he was a member of the Communist Party, he answered, "I ain't a communist necessarily, but I been in the red all my life". Guthrie died in 1967 but his words live on through his song 'This Land is Your Land', now the unofficial anthem of the USA.


Originally from New Jersey, Dr Kaufman is Reader in English and American Studies at the University of Central Lancashire and has published widely on many aspects of American culture. He has also been a semi-professional folksinger and musician for over 30 years, and is equally at home playing the guitar, fiddle and banjo.



  This article first appeared in JMU News
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